top of page

Surfing, Spirituality and Zen on the Water

I stretched my body upwards placing my arms above my head looking towards the sky warming up my muscles and slowing my breath. As I prepared for the cold sea I strapped on my leg leash and I threw my surfboard under my arm and ran for the sea. I began paddling out, getting hit by the cold backwash of the white water, I instantly felt the power of the ocean and paddled as hard as I could to make it out to the 'safe spot', behind where the waves break and joined the line-up. Sitting on my surfboard I placed my hand of the surface of the water and looked over my shoulder watching the water begin to swell. My heart race started to get faster with excitement hoping for a good wave. "You got this, paddle hard" I whispered to myself. Wishing for a good wave, I turned around and dragged my hands into the water and paddled hard, giving it everything I had. At the last second I quickly glimpsed behind me, giving it one last hard stroke and I'm up! "Breath, feel the wave, listen to the water" I told myself as a huge smile appeared across my face. I rode the wave all the way to the beach dragging my hand across the face. I repeated this rhythm until the sun went down. I began to think about this feeling and how without those waves, without surfing I am incomplete, and how surfing is substantially more than a sport or a hobby but offers me a meaning of spirituality.

As part of my undergraduate degree in anthropology, I completed my final dissertation on the sport, art and religion of surfing and how people make spiritual meaning out their sport. In summer of 2017, I completed fieldwork in Ericeira and Peniche, Portugal, two small seaside towns famous for their surf breaks and attracting surfers from all over the world. My starting point was a very broad set of questions regarding the human-environment relationships surfers have with water but through my fieldwork, I managed to refine this to present surfing as bodily habitus and enchantment and the relationship surfers have with the changing environment of the ocean and ultimately how this leads them towards finding Zen. I took a phenomenological approach and while I focused on surfing as spiritual it was not a study of religion but about why some surfers report an affiliation between surfing and a bodily experience referred to as Zen.

Within phenomenology, there is a pervasive argument that the body is the most fundamental means of communication and interaction with the world and we make sense of the world by acquiring information through our bodies (Lewis, 2000). For example, surfers understand and locate themselves by feeling and moving their way through the water, which allows them to find spiritual meaning in their sport. In the same way, spirituality is defined as being transformative or a process, a need to gain an understanding towards the meaning of life (Taylor, 2007), so too is the notion of enchantment. Enchantment is transformative where experiencing it not only transforms the very perception of reality but also the experiencer themselves. As spirituality involves something profound experiencing enchantment involves ones spiritual imagination being unlocked and occurs within bodily and emotional dimensions. Similarly, both a spiritual experience and enchantment are situated experiences. Seen from the outside they do not have any distinguishing marks. They are both private and involve intense connection from within (Halloy & Sarvais, 2014). This transformative, uplifting feeling of Zen surfers talk about is only understood through experiences and feedback of those actors transforming. Therefore surfers understand and locate themselves by feeling and moving their way through the water. I used this notion of transformation and the use of bodily habitus in the water to present my ideas of surfing as spiritual stoke.

Surfing as Spiritual Stoke

"If there is magic on this is contained in water." Naturalist Loren Eiseley (Yogis, 2009: 96)

Spirituality as a term is inherently complex and difficult to define, however, the Oxford English dictionary defines spiritual as relating to or affecting the human spirit as opposed to material or physical things, it is not concerned with material values or pursuits. Therefore, for the intensions of my dissertation, I proposed the term spiritual to be concerned with personal purpose and meaning where nature and the environment are intimately linked with exactly those questions of purpose and meaning.

Surfing as a means of spirituality opposes traditional and societal rules when discussing religion. Habitually people turn to religion to answer questions concerning spiritual experience; however, within the surfing subculture, people are turning to surfing, considering it to be more of a spiritual experience than a pastime activity. This idea of enchantment and something spiritual can be linked to the changing environment and space surfers locate themselves in. The ocean is a powerful teaching source and presents so many opportunities to learn, experience and grow from. The ocean presents itself and for surfers offers a body of magic that is alive however, it is a strong energy source that is constantly changing. Every wave is different, it's a different speed, height and it creates this idea that surfers embody the waves where the waves and surfer become one. Surfers are interacting and reacting constantly with a moving surface and the ocean creates this unique and constantly changing environment. When surfers surf they enter into a different world, one that is partially commanded by the ocean. They understand they become part of something larger and surrender to the ocean developing deep respect of the water. Yet this interaction and connection makes surfers feel special, privileged and leads to a euphoric sense of freedom. Through this connection to Mother Nature and the ocean surfers partially harness and feel its energy and turn this into the feeling of spirituality and zen when catching a wave.

The Surfing Body

"We perceive not with our eyes, the ears, or the surface of the skin, but with the whole body" (Ingold, 2004: 330).

Undoubtedly it is not surprising that surfers seem to worship the ocean. Surfers grow and experience within the ocean. Marylin Ferguson (2009) discusses spiritual experience as a transformation of consciousness, alternation of mental, physical and/ or emotional state where this indescribable experience is what differentiates spirituality from other meaning-making processes and what differentiates surfing from brushing your hair, for example. The use of the body moving through the environment creates freedom and creates an embodied awareness: to feel and touch the environment. For a surfer in mapping the wave with their body - through bodily movements, touching the wave, feeling the power of the wave on their feet and moving with the wave - they are in turn mapped by the wave. Both the surfer and the environment inscribe each other and reflects how surfers make sense of the world, it allows you to experience a journey within yourself.

The embodied form, the way surfers use their body: the movement of putting on a wetsuit, wrapping a leg-leash around your ankle, waxing your surfboard, the motion of paddling hard against the waves to get out past where the waves break, from an outsider is simply someone going for a surf. However, for a surfer all these bodily movements become part of a process and part of a transformation that occurs within. This transformation happens during the repetition of bodily movements repeating the motions of surfing again and again and creates a state of connection that allows a transformation of consciousness or spiritual experience to occur. Surfing allows you to just be in the moment, just you and the wave, and it is in these moments the surfer enters an enchanted, self-transcendent state that creates an alternation of consciousness co-created with the ocean.

The indescribable, transformative, intense and enlightened feeling surfers talk about is created through the use of the body and deep connection to Mother Nature and the changing environment of the ocean, and it is through this connection surfers find Zen on the water.

"Some people go to church to pray, others may go to temples to feel closer to a higher power...for me, surfing is my ritual, surfing is my Zen." (Jake, 26 from Lisbon, Portugal. 2017)


bottom of page